Lawyers defending a Hong Kong couple accused of murdering their five-year-old daughter have argued her death was the result of excessive corporal punishment and gross negligence, as prosecutors maintained the case was too serious for manslaughter.
The High Court on Wednesday heard closing arguments in the trial of the girl’s 29-year-old father and 30-year-old stepmother, after she died of septicaemia on January 6, 2018.
The couple have admitted to child cruelty inflicted upon the girl and her eight-year-old brother over 150 days from August 10, 2017, but denied murdering her. The children’s 56-year-old step-grandmother has denied all four counts of cruelty.
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Both murder and manslaughter are punishable by life in prison, while the cruelty charge carries a maximum term of 10 years.
At issue was whether the parents had the intent to cause the child grievous bodily harm, and how involved the step-grandmother was.
They provided terror, they provided pain, a lot of pain.
Senior assistant director of public prosecutions Derek Lai
Derek Lai Kim-wah, the senior assistant director of public prosecutions, said he had rejected the parents’ offer to plead guilty to manslaughter for the sole reason that the case was “much more serious” than excessive corporal punishment and gross negligence in their failure to provide timely medical care.
Lai argued that both defendants had “repeatedly tortured” the two children in those five months of “crazy abuse” and, at some point, had the intention to cause the girl serious bodily harm.
One example was denying the child food for three to four days on three occasions in November and December 2017, when she was also experiencing other forms of abuse, including beatings that resulted in serious injuries.
Lai said the abuse had significantly weakened the child’s immune system by causing an involution of her thymus, a vital organ for fighting bacterial infections, such as the salmonella that eventually killed her, and her chances of survival was diminished by the lack of timely medical intervention.
“You will have no difficulty in finding that [the parents] caused the death of the girl,” he told the jury.
The prosecutor also noted that the defence had sought to portray the two children as growing up in a loving and caring family, but that was far from the truth and the photos of their injuries “speak a thousand words”.
Instead of providing love, care and safety to the children, Lai said: “They provided terror, they provided pain, a lot of pain. If they were loving and caring, we would not be in this courtroom. [The girl] would not have died.”
As for the step-grandmother, Lai said the most serious crime she committed was neglecting the children in her care, in the flat she owned.
“[She] could have stopped those beatings, stopped those punishments, stopped [the girl] from her death if she chose to interfere as a grandparent would do,” Lai said. “But she chose not to.”
In reply, defence counsel Alex Ng conceded his client, the father, had “lost his cool” and inflicted excessive corporal punishment at a time when the family was experiencing “a very difficult transitional period” after moving away from his mother, to live with the step-grandmother.
But Ng denied that the abuse was a continuous act lasting months, or had amounted to torture in hell, as Lai had claimed.
The counsel said manslaughter was “the only verdict supported by the evidence”, because it would be “a bit far-fetched” to accuse his client of having an intent to cause the girl really serious harm, when he was punishing the children “in the spirit of disciplining” them, with good intentions.
“I’m not saying those punishments were right, acceptable,” he said. “But they remain punishments for misbehaviour.”
Ng submitted that the father was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence, in his failure to bring her to the doctor, believing that his wife could handle the wounds, except the children would also pick the scabs.
Defence counsel Caesar Lo, for the stepmother, similarly observed that it had never crossed her mind that the injuries were so serious the child could die, adding she had tried her best to treat the wounds.
Lo conceded that the stepmother was selfish in not taking the child to the doctor, but said she did not hate the girl or want her to die, as reflected by her efforts to buy her things, treat her speech problem, and revive her when she collapsed at home on the day she died.
The counsel argued that her judgment was impaired by her depression, so she mistook the possible symptoms of the salmonella infection as signs of misbehaviour, and failed to realise that she could have been ill from as early as December 21, 2017.
He urged the jury to appreciate his client’s difficulties as a stepmother with a turbulent past and small social circle, then trapped at home, under immense stress from dealing with endless chores and resentful children.
None of the defendants or their relatives can be identified because of a gag order from Mr Justice Albert Wong Sung-hau aimed at protecting the identities of the children.
The trial continues on Thursday.
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